Stronghold 3 Review: Beware Enraged Bears
Newly arrived peasants also form the basis of your armies. They can theoretically be recruited very fast, if you have ideal conditions at the castle, and enough workshops churning out weapons.
You’ll need a lot of troops, because the units in Stronghold 3 are practically unusable. They have literally no artificial intelligence to speak of — one soldier will stand idle as the soldier next to him gets slaughtered, and if you order a group of your troops to attack a group of enemies, they will stop fighting once the particular enemy you clicked on has died. To get them to continue fighting, you’ll have to specifically attack the next enemy, and the next.
Good luck doing that, however. Selecting and and giving orders to units in Stronghold 3 is basically a coin toss. Draw a box around a group of your troops, and you might select all of them. Or half of them. More likely, however, you won’t be able to select any of them, and you’ll have to scroll the mouse wheel in and out a couple times, adjusting the camera to some mysterious, magical height at which you are allowed to actually play the game.
Even when ordered to attack, the units behave in bizarre ways. Archers run approximately twice as fast as infantry, and often charge blindly forward, closing to melee range without firing a single arrow and getting summarily slaughtered. Soldiers have difficulty navigating the fortifications they’re designed to defend, and frequently get irretrievably stuck in buildings.
Though Stronghold 3 is ostensibly about building castles, the mechanics you’re given to actually build them are buggy and frustrating. I could point to the above-mentioned stone-count debacle, or the minutes wasted trying to build stone ramps up to the battlements, which the game is convinced should be placed on the outside of the wall — convenient for besieging enemies, but useless to my own troops.
Unfortunately, outward facing fortifications offer little defense against the game’s panoply of fickle, punitive random events. Imagine this: your carefully constructed peasant economy is chugging along, until a pair of “enraged bears” spawn out of thin air and begin methodically murdering your work force. Your troops chase impotently after them, too slow to catch up and too stupid to do anything if the bears pause for a breather. Does anything sound less fun?
“Does our castle have enough wells to put out the fire, sire?” the narrator asks. Until fire actually breaks out, the game offers no explanation of what wells are for, or why you might need to build them. This is what’s meant, presumably, by a “trial by fire.”
Looking back, I wonder how I managed to stick with the game as long as I did. It certainly wasn’t the dated, grainy graphics, or the even-more-dated animations. There are a handful of things that do deserve praise: the story is delivered through a set of charming, retro pen-and-ink drawings, and the voice acting is better than expected, even when it has to deliver mission objectives disguised as dialogue — imagine someone saying “we needed to build a quarry, and increase the output of our logging camps” in the most pathos-ridden way possible.
The soundtrack consists of medieval-tinged folk that only occasionally drifts into “Brave Sir Robin” territory. There’s even a haunting version of “John Barleycorn,” an English folk classic popularized by Traffic in the early 1970′s.
This inspired inclusion, the earnest voice acting, and some deft, comical touches (like giving each individual peasant a goofy name) suggest that Firefly actual did care about establishing the tone and the atmosphere of their game. If only the same could be said for the gameplay itself.
It almost seems as if they couldn’t be bothered, either to make the game work like its supposed to, or even to explain how it all fits together. Stronghold 3 is not a hard game to figure out on your own, but when you’re struggling uphill, fighting bugs at every turn, why would you want to? People will play a boring game, and people will play a broken game, but no one should ever have to play a boring, broken game.
- Intricate economy
- Atmospheric soundtrack
- Charming aesthetic
- Brain-dead unit behavior
- Awful save system
- Glacial pace
- Unexplained mechanics
- Frequent bugs
Final Score: 40/100